See how brands can benefit from collaborating with art and culture

Bi Rongrong, Stitched Urban Skin, 2022. Courtesy Muse, The Rolls-Royce Arts Programme. Photo by Zhang Jing_Hugo Photo

Art and money have long shared a seductive rapport. Few major works of art would have seen the light of day had it not been for the direct patronage of monarchs or the church. Nowadays, it is businesses who make most cultural events possible. Opening next week, brand partners for Frieze London, for instance, include Deutsche Bank, BMW, Ruinart and La Prairie. And much like the kings and queens that came before them, businesses benefit tremendously from associating with the arts. Call it soft-power – today’s most powerful tool. It is a win-win scenario.

Saying that, there are rules, and not everyone plays their cards right. Last year, an unnamed global brand pulled out of a major gallery sponsorship confiding that the transaction was unfair. The gallery in question wanted the funds but refused to have any further association with the patron other than allowing for a very small brand logo to appear in the space. Sponsorship has to be a two-way game.

An interesting case study is Rolls-Royce, a company that dips its toes frequently in the arts. Through its Rolls-Royce Arts Programme, it actively works with a range of artists from around the world, many of whom are pushing the boundaries and are highly provocative. And although it may seem counter-intuitive for a brand operating in the grand luxury space to be associating with radical artworks, it speaks volumes about its confidence.

The latest ‘Spirit of Ecstasy Challenge’ sees Rolls-Royce work with a trio of textile artists who collectively speak of the possibilities of rethinking materials in the context of consumption, innovation and the environment. London based designer Scarlett Yang’s ethereal textile sculpture is made of algae extract and silk cocoon protein. Moroccan textile designer Ghizlane Sahli brings beauty to discarded materials. Meanwhile, Shanghai artist Bi Rongrong incorporates elements and imagery from the urban landscape to create a hanging artwork of multi-layered meanings.

Questioning consumption and waste may seem risky for a brand that relies on consumer spending, yet it subtly signifies that Rolls-Royce is confident enough to be having such conversations. It says that this is a progressive future-facing company which champions innovation. Crucially, such an association implies that Rolls-Royce is not a dusty heritage brand but rather one that is at the forefront of current debate. And on a more practical level, since much of Rolls-Royce sales are dependent on singular commissions and bespoke craft, then ideas found in such commissions can find their way directly into the cars, elevating the company from being just another car brand.

As head of the company’s arts program, Jessica Persson Conway believes it is essential for Rolls-Royce to associate with the creative industries. ‘The arts are a source of inspiration, and we must support future generations of art and design talent.’ She says of the latest ‘Muse’ programme: ‘Our story is about pushing the technical and conceptual boundaries with materials and our interiors. There is a strong link here.’

So what constitutes a successful partnership, and what should brands look for when committing to a sponsorship? ‘Basic business sense comes into play as to whether brand partnerships are a success,’ says Leigh Banks, partner at Spinach Branding. In his role as branding director he often works with businesses to help align them with suitable artists, designers and creative events. A recent project saw the Italian drinks giant, Campari, team with Affordable Art Fair to stage a vibrant street exhibition in London, profits from which went directly to the artists, many of whom had suffered financially during the pandemic.

Banks continues: ‘It is important to ask questions such as does the partnership speak to both audiences? Are both audiences activated by the proposition? Do the values of the partners align? Such simple qualifications can go a long way in preventing costly experiences in terms of damage to reputation and lost equity.’

Performed right and the benefits are clear. By associating with culture, businesses will come across as progressive, and the connection may even inspire internal teams to think and act differently. Meanwhile, artists and designers benefit financially from the backing. Whatever the motive, contemporary arts patronage needs to be viewed as a long-term partnership rather than an instant instagram snapshot. And there has to be a degree of transparency with the transaction.

Images: Bi Rongrong ‘Stitched Urban Skin’ for the Rolls-Royce Arts Programme, photo ©Zhang Jing/Hugo Photo, Scarlett Yang ‘Transient Materiality’ for the Rolls-Royce Arts Program ©Mark Cocksedge.

Spinach Branding is a specialist branding agency based in London. We work with established businesses and start-ups around the world to build and refine their brands. See how we work and get in touch to discuss your brand.

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